A significant problem with Marvel’s TV programming is that it can very generic. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. struggled to create a distinct identity in its first season, telling standard action adventure stories that piggybacked off of events in the Marvel Cinematic Universe but didn’t really offer anything new. The series has course corrected in the second season with a new focus on exploring different areas of the MCU, primarily through the incorporation of Inhuman mythology, but it’s not doing groundbreaking work by any means. Then there’s Agent Carter, which combined the retro, office-based gender politics of Mad Men with the undercover spy narrative of Alias. It had a much stronger point of view than S.H.I.E.L.D., but a lot of that came from the stylish design. The stories on Agent Carter weren’t much more creative than those on S.H.I.E.L.D., hitting all the typical spy beats, but in a time period that made it feel different on the surface.

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Daredevil is a generic crime drama, but its stylized visuals and intriguing performances make up for the lack of originality in the plotting and scripting. “Shadows In The Glass” is the first episode written by showrunner Steven S. DeKnight, and it highlights the more pedestrian elements of the series as it delves into Wilson Fisk’s past. Flashing back to a young Wilson (Cole Jensen) in 1970s Hell’s Kitchen, this episode reveals how Wilson’s relationship with his father, Bill (The Wire’s Domenick Lombardozzi), was radically different than Matt and Jack’s, detailing the life-changing moment that set Wilson on the path he’s on today. The major difference between the two father-son dynamics is that one is a lot more nuanced than the other, and DeKnight’s handling of Wilson and Bill’s relationship doesn’t establish a strong, believable foundation between the characters before barreling into the drama.

Drew Goddard took his time building Matt and Jack’s bond over the course of the first two episodes, and he showed different sides of their relationship to establish just how much these two men relied on each other. DeKnight’s storytelling is far more rushed, and he relies on exaggeration to create emotional stakes. “This city? It’s everything,” Bill tells his son as they make signs for his doomed city council campaign. “It’s right there. And all you gotta do is put your mind to it and make it happen.” The dialogue is stale and devoid of personality, primarily focused on reinforcing the themes of the series rather than the emotional reality of the characters.

After that first flashback, Bill becomes the stereotypical abusive dad that blames his family for all of his personal failings. He makes Wilson beat a boy that disrespects their family, but the rage Bill awakens inside his son comes back to haunt him later. After being forced to stare at a wall of cracked white paint while his father beats his mother with a belt, Wilson gets out of the seat, picks up a hammer, and slams it into his father’s skull. And as he keeps bringing the hammer down, sending blood splattering across his face and clothes, he screams the words his father yelled at him earlier when he kicked that boy. The writing is as blunt as the edge of Wilson’s murder weapon, and the big climactic moment would be far more effective if Bill and Wilson’s relationship wasn’t so one-dimensional.

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This show doesn’t incorporate much music beyond John Paesano’s score, but this episode incorporates two popular melodies for different effects. The first is Bach’s “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 In G Major,” a piece of music that has become a go-to for bringing a sense of refinement and sophistication to whatever it’s accompanying, whether it’s a montage of the Galapagos or close-ups of dogs’ faces. That song is a major part of the recurring sequence depicting Wilson’s morning routine, which begins with him waking up from nightmares of his past in a panic. He calms down by staring at the white painting he bought from Vanessa, and then the Bach begins to play as he cooks a lonely omelet for himself, and picks out his suit for the day, accentuating both the sadness and elegance of his lifestyle. But the main thing I think about when I hear that piece of music is all the commercials it’s been used in, and another piece of classical music could have been used to create the same impression without reminding the viewer of dog food.

Using The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” as the main music cue for a flashback to 1970s New York City isn’t an inspired choice by any means, but the song is such a strong shift from the mood of the rest of the episode that it’s a welcome addition. That very first shot of Wilson’s flashback with “Brown Sugar” playing in the background brings more character to the city than anything we’ve seen with Hell’s Kitchen in the present, and there’s a life to the city in these flashbacks that makes them a refreshing change of setting. The creative team needs to find a way to bring that essence to the surface in the current Hell’s Kitchen, which is more difficult when it can’t rely on music cues and costuming to enliven the environment.

Earlier today, my weekly “Big Issues” column spotlighted The Kitchen, a Vertigo Comics miniseries about Hell’s Kitchen mob wives that become crime bosses when their husbands go to prison. That series stands out because it breaks from the mob drama tradition of putting women in supporting positions, and it’s made me acutely aware of the roles women typically play in these types of narratives. Like in this week’s Daredevil, which has yet another speech from Karen talking about how scared she is all the time, and casts Vanessa Marianna as the Madonna in white that can wash away all of Wilson’s sins and teach him to forgive himself.

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But there’s one big exception in the female cast. One woman that isn’t a victim, and who isn’t here to offer comfort and salvation. Her name is Madame Gao, and Wilson Fisk does not want to get on her bad side. Wai Ching Ho has a natural authority that makes her a formidable opponent for D’Onofrio, who makes it very clear that Gao is some Wilson deeply fears. And he should. There’s a bigger story behind Gao that the show is slowly teasing, and her revelation in this episode that she speaks all languages is one piece of a puzzle that is far from complete by the end of the season.

Gao thinks that Wilson is getting sloppy, so he needs to do something big to regain the faith of his ally. That’s possible after he confesses his past sins to Vanessa and escapes the depressing routine of his life. He still wakes in the middle of the night from bad dreams, but now there’s somebody next to him to find comfort in, which gives him the confidence to make his next major move. To prevent a slanderous reveal of his presence in Hell’s Kitchen, which Ben Urich is currently working on after getting new information from the masked man, Wilson Fisk goes public in a press conference that casts a positive light on his work and paints the masked man as a terrorist standing in the way of a new age of prosperity for his city.

DeKnight’s script gives Vincent D’Onofrio a huge number of opportunities to chew the scenery, and the man commits. After telling Vanessa about the seminal trauma in his past, Wilson explains why he wears his father’s cufflinks, and D’Onofrio gives a deliciously over-the-top portrayal of a tortured supervillain: “I didn’t do it for her. I did it for me! That’s why I still wear these. To remind myself that I’m not cruel for the sake of cruelty! That I’m not my father! That I’m not a monster! (Pause.) Am I?” Wilson Fisk isn’t just any crime kingpin. He’s a crime kingpin in a superhero universe, and through both the script and performance, we’re starting to see his character move in an exaggerated direction that aligns him with other MCU bad guys.

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Stray observations:

  • Matt, Foggy, and Karen finally spend considerable time together, and by “considerable” I mean two scenes where they mostly talk about the Union Allied case. We’re starting to see more of how Matt’s secret vigilante life makes him a hypocrite in his dealings with Karen and Foggy, but the connection between the three of them still isn’t as tight as it could be. We need a few scenes of them bonding over something that isn’t work, ideally a trip to Josie’s akin to episode two but with all three Nelson & Murdock employees.
  • I liked that white painting a lot more when it was an abstract expression of Wilson’s loneliness and not an explicit reflection of the wall he was forced to stare at before he killed his father.
  • The real mystery of this episode is why does Wilson Fisk own a whole drawer of cufflinks if he only wears one pair?
  • Hoffman: “You shot him.” Wesley: “Technically, we paid someone else to shoot him.”
  • “How much are each of those years worth to you? In round figures?”
  • Leland: “Kid’s half an idiot.” Wilson: “It’s the other half that counts.”
  • “I like the place. Not sure about the table. Looks like you aren’t either.”

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